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Victorian lives in North Mymms
by Peter Kingsford

Chapter 4
Women's Work

The old saying, a woman’s work is never done, was about housewives bringing up children and caring for a family. They were the unpaid workers of the parish. Some of them worked for a wage part time as well, usually out of necessity. Other women did a full day’s work; they were usually the heads of the households, widows supporting a family, though some were younger single women earning a meagre living as domestic servants. These women of all kinds worked because there was a demand for their services or because they were pressed by a need for money.

In 1851 most of the part time workers, those who often doubled as housewives, were straw plaiters, seventy-four of them. They have been fully described in North Mymms People in Victorian Times - chapter4. Usually the wives of low paid farm workers, they supplemented the family income, sometimes earning as much as their husbands and thereby gaining themselves some independence. Their social superiors might complain that they neglected their housework but their work was in demand from the hat industry in Luton and St Albans.

Well below their living standard were those working women who, through the loss of their husbands, had been left to maintain themselves and their families, some twenty of them. There were exceptions among these widows. Hannah Speary, licensee of the Sibthorpe Inn, Elizabeth Messer the baker at Bell Bar, Sarah Smith shopkeeper were surely well above the poverty line. But most of them took on ill-paid work as well as their housework. There was a demand for their services as laundress, gardener, seamstress, dairy woman. Much depended on how many children they were left with, how many were old enough to work and how many other young ones there were. Susannah Cadbury, a labourer’s widow of Water End had two children earning a wage but she also had five children still at school and enough to do without her laundry work. Jane Flawn of Welham Green also a laundress was perhaps better off with only one daughter who helped with the laundry; and a lodger to help pay for the rent. Martha Shepherd in Bell Bar had taken up charing and she had a wage earning son with her, but Eliza Prudence of Water End had been left with two small children and no means of earning. A few of these women had been left quite alone and independently earned a living like dairy woman Eliza Clements and straw plaiter, Annie Fuller. A few others, such as Anne Burr of Welham Green, having given up independence through age or incapacity, depended on parish relief.

Most women worked solely as housewives. Their labours underpinned the whole system of landowners, farmers and labourers and they enabled the farm work of their labourer husbands to continue from generation to generation. They were the real heroines of the parish. Recognition of this came from the vicar, praising, ‘Our Cottagers’ Wives’, who find that it is better economy to stay at home and make home and its duty their sphere of labour, rather than taking to field work which, where there is a family at home, can only be carried on by neglecting what is the wife’s proper work and care.’ But these women were urged to raise their standards of work. At the Cottage Garden Show of 1872 prizes for them were announced as follows.

Prizes will be given for Needlework to Labourers Wives. Those who take in needlework will not be deemed eligible for these prizes, as it would be unfair to allow regular needlewornen to compete with the Agricultural Labourer’s Wife. The prizes will be as follows:

Best made Men’s White Shirt - Three prizes, 2/6, 2/- and 1/6
Best made Men’s Coloured Shirt - Three prizes, 2/-, 1/6, and 1/-
Best made Flannel Petticoat, Cotton or Worsted - Three prizes, 2/-, 1/6, 1/-
Best patched Shift or Shirt - Three prize, 2/6, and 1/-
Best patched Sheet - Two prizes, 2/6, and 1/-
Best made Children’s Frocks - Three prizes, 2k, 1/6, and 1/-
Best made set of Baby Linen - Two prizes, 5/-, and 4/-
Best made Patch-work Quilt - Two prizes, 3/6, and 2/6
Best-made Loaf - Three prizes, 2/-. 1/6, and 1/-

Twenty-four prizes in all. Whatever the wives thought of this, after a year only eleven prizes were awarded and thereafter there is no record. It was a man, Richard Church, who won the contest for the best loaf.

House work was also to be encouraged with prizes for "the wife of a bona tide Agricultural Labourer for the Cleanest Cottage where there are five children at home under twelve years of age" (the age for starting work). Mrs W Longstaff of Foxes Lane won the first prize from Mrs Simpkins of Roestock; not because of a higher degree of cleanliness but her eldest child was only eight, younger than Mrs Simpkins’s. Mrs John Chuck of Balloon Corner received a mention, but it is not clear what that meant. The gentry, having drawn away the daughters as their servants, evidently felt that the wives’ interminable task of keeping their cottages clean needed some stimulus.

If there was money in the purse there was shopping to be done, if not so frequently perhaps more pleasantly. Housewives could go for groceries to Henry White in Welham Green or Catherine Littlechild in Pooleys Lane; for meat (but not often) to William Reynold in Roestock, and for anything else to Susan Ansell’s shop in Foxes Lane and Sarah Smith’s at Mimwood Hill. Shoemakers and dressmakers plied their trades in various parts of the parish. No doubt the housewives also waited for the hawkers to arrive. These men sometimes fell foul of the law. A hawker from Hadley was charged in 1845 with selling one yard of figured net, two muslin handkerchiefs, one pair of gloves and one bootlace in Welham Green without a licence and was fined £10.

The wives of the artisans, gardeners and gamekeepers were superior to the labourers’ wives. They had to pay threepence per head per week for school fees, a penny more than die labourers’. They were in three separate groups. The gamekeepers’ wives, four of them, also worked as seamstress, bonnet sewer and straw plaiter. Those married to the gentler and expanding trade of gardener, eight in number, did not. For some, like Sarah S minions looking after two working sons and four children at school in Folly Lodge, it would have been impracticable. Eliza Butler at Mimwood Hill perhaps did not need to for two of her daughters were dressmakers.

The village artisans and tradesmen, wheelwrights, carpenters, a stonemason, a joiner, bricklayers, .boot and shoemakers, the odd shopkeeper, altogether about twenty five, were the aristocrats of labour in the parish. Their wives were apparently not concerned with earning but there were a few exceptions. Mary Ann Arnold of Welham Green acted as bootbinder to her cordwainer husband as well as caring for four young children and an apprentice but no doubt her wages were all in the family. Ann Hutchins of Mount Pleasant had the time to do some straw plaiting besides looking after her carpenter husband, for her daughter was old enough to be a dressmaker. But one may wonder how much dressmaking Hannah Pratchett could do while she had living with her at Balloon Corner eight children, four of whom were wage earners and four at school, as well as the builder her husband. Mother wife, Ann Peck was a charwoman and in addition her son worked on a farm and her two daughters at hat weaving and straw plaiting. Perhaps her shoemaker husband was not doing too well for there were plenty in his trade in the village, and no doubt there was plenty of scope for her work in Brookmans close to her cottage in Bell Bar.

Higher up in local society were the twenty or so farmers’ wives. They paid sixpence a week for each child at school. Some could afford that more easily than others for the size of farms varied between twenty and four hundred acres. Five children meant two shillings and sixpence weekly. Most likely these women did not have the inclination or the time to earn, as working farmers’ housewives. Rebecca Reynolds, straw plaiter, was the only exception. Her husband had the smallest farm in the parish, one of only twenty-two acres at Hog Lane, No doubt what she, as well as her two young daughters could earn at plaiting was needed as she also had two younger children at school. In contrast, at Potterells Farm of 400 acres the large Blakey family, Samuel and Sarah his wife, their five daughters and two sons, occupied the farmhouse, together with three farm workers they had brought with them from Lincolnshire, a household of twelve. Five of the children were of school age or younger. There was no resident domestic help hut doubtless the two teenage daughters enabled Sarah to keep the place in order.

Such is a picture of most of the women in the middle of last century, in so far as it is possible to draw it. Not much more is known about them. Occasionally there is a more personal glimpse. The vicar, Horace Meyer, writes in his diary about Mary Kemp: "the wife of Job Kemp, a rough labourer, a refined, gentle invalid, a holy living Christian, converted by a tract left by the Rev Faitbfull as she was at her washtub." The young Kemp couple lived at Balloon Corner; she did strawplaiting.

With earning ability, especially of the plaitworkers, went a degree of independence and authority. There is also the fact that so many wives were older than their husbands, no less than a quarter of them. Was it because older women had been able to accumulate some savings, which were an attraction? There is evidence that the plaitcrs put their earnings in a savings bank so as to afford getting married. The women lived longer than the men but not for long, for only one in twenty reached seventy years. The cottages they swept and polished were insanitary and unhealthy.

During those lives they could fall back on the welfare of the age. They could subscribe to the numerous clubs - a club for adults clothing, another fur boys’ clothing, another for girls’ and one for bed clothing, clubs for coal, for the rent and fur shoes, a kind of insurance subsidised by the gentry on the principle of one nation, not two. This provision was not as effective as it might have been for when the energetic, reforming Rev A S Latter came to the vicarage in the 1860s he put it on a better footing. The parish charities met some of the needs of some of the deserving women, those who had not been a burden on the poor rate. Four widows were given four shillings a week each and another one shilling and sixpence a week, and all of them received bread, meat and potatoes at Easter.

For those women who fell by the wayside there was in the last resort the Poor Law, most to be given outdoor relief in their homes, a few going to Hatfield Workhouse. A dozen women, still plaiting, others former servants, mostly aged widows, bad parish relief at home, some with what were called medical tickets. It was, in fact, cheaper to grant outdoor relief than to maintain a workhouse inmate. In l851, only two women and three girls were taken into the House. Ann Sudle with a baby was destitute; AnnTurner, an epileptic, was taken to the House in a cab by Mrs Peck, the charwoman wife of Samuel the shoemaker. The three girls, Elizabeth aged 10, a plaiter, Eliza 8 and Emma 5 Rands, had bcen deserted by their mother in their cottage in Hog Lane; their father, a railway labourer, had been sentenced to seven years’ transportation for stealing a leg of mutton in Catherine Littlechild’s shop.

After a generation changes in the women’s lot might be expected. One change, in the balance of the sexes was hardly an improvement from the women’s point of view; by the early 1880s there were more women than men. There had, however, certainly been a general advance in another direction. The housewives’ cottages were not so insanitary as before. After the Sanitary Act of 1866 those dwellings which had no privies or cesspooLs were provided with them, and the risk of disease among the children was somewhat reduced.

An equally important change was in the opportunities to earn money. Straw plaiting and its successor, hat weaving, had disappeared, while the husbands’ wages as farm labourers had risen only slightly. Also, some other occupations had shrunk, the charwomen from six to three, seamstresses from five to one and the dressmakers from ten to only two. The charring had probably been taken over by the swollen retinue of servants in the big and lesser houses. The seamstresses and dressmakers catered for working people and perhaps they had been superseded by manufacture. Those losses had been partly offset in other ways. Domestic service and laundering, maintaining the well being of the hater off and well to do families had expanded.

That cleanliness came text to godliness was a favourite motto in that age but it was easier said than done for most people. The great houses had their own laundries and three laundry maids worked at North Mymms Place, two at Potterells and two at Brookmans but all the other families who could afford it relied on village women. From eighteen laundresses the middle class of Little Heath claimed five. Nearly all of them, working with their own tubs and irons, were poor, widows or wives of farm labourers. One prospered. Eliza Chuck, helped by her husband Jimmy who fetched water from the stream, made enough money to build five houses in Holloways Lane and to own their own house in Abdale Cottages where the laundry work was done.

Far removed from laundry work, the occupation of three women was "working in the fields" - Emma and Mary Perry, daughters of a farm labourer in Roestock and Ann Hutchins who maintained her eighty year old aunt. Such work for women was not mentioned in the 1850s, though there was undoubtedly part time field work. Those three women were hardly an advance on the fifties in view of Victorian opinion that farm labour was "unwomanly". In fact, they came from Norfolk where the organised gangs of women and girls were well known.

The women who were heads of their households doubled in number over the years in a population which rose only ten per cent. Of these forty women all but four were widows; a high mortality among husbands. These women kept their homes together as laundresses or needlewomen, on the wages of their offspring, on parish relief. A few exceptions like Hannah Bodger licensee of the Hope & Anchor, Eliza Littlechild of Parsonage Farm, farmer Rebecca Chuck of Welham Green and Letitia Haines the headmistress of Water End School, were more fortunate.

For the deserving the parish charities continued though they did not keep pace with the widows, and for the undeserving, parish relief. In the harsh winters when the frost kept the men out of work their wives could now go to the soup kitchens provided by the kindness of the gentry. The landowners contributed towards the cost with a little of the rent from the farmers who could not or would not pay their labourers. Other forms of welfare became better organised, more numerous and more heavily subsidised by the gentry led by the vicar. As well as the old thrift clubs other bodies, mainly for women, had appeared - the wives’ friendly society, the widows’ and sick fund, the medical club and, on a moral plane, the Girls Friendly Society. The girls’ school at Water End also played a part in improving the women’s lot, for the girls were allowed to stay at school longer than the boys and were literate earlier than they were. The mothers on the other hand, could, since the early 1870s, go to their Meetings where the ladies of the parish received them at Abdale, Potterells and the vicarage. The women were relieved of their children for an hour or two and, for the vicar, the Mothers’ Meetings showed "that the rich and the poor had mutual interests binding society together and erecting and maintaining kindly feelings between class and class".

There was a darker side to the lives of women whether waged or unwaged for they were always liable to suffer violence or seduction. Earlier in the century, in the 1830s, Mary Fields, Ann Puller and Harriet Wacket were among those granted maintenance orders against the fathers of their illegitimate children. The amounts payable varied between is 3d. and 2s 6d. per week. The Bastardy Laws required the County to report to Parliament the number of cases until much later. One case was that of Fred Clover of Colney Heath who was summoned at Petty Sessions in 1859 to support the child of Louisa Jackson described as "a respectable young women supporting her mother, who had been seduced on a promise of marriage". Glover, working for his father who had two farms in the parish, was made to pay 2s 6d. a week. Louisa, a dressmaker, continued to help her aged mother run her grocer’s shop in Mount Pleasant.

More serious offences such as rape went to the Hertford Assizes as in 1849. An eighteen year old garden labourer employed by R W Gaussen of Brookmans was committed by his master for "violently assaulting and feloniously ravishing" a laundress of Welham Green. Depicted in the press as "a masculine woman", she related how the assault took place in the presence of another young woman who ran for help. The judge in his male wisdom took her story with a pinch of salt. ‘There was some kind of assault", he opined, "but if it was of so criminal a nature as stated by the prosecution, no adequate resistance could have been offered," His meaning, though obscure, told against the woman and the youth was found guilty of no more than common assault and received only four months hard labour. It was a male world. The young woman who lived with her widowed mother, also a laundress, became the wife of a railway labourer in due course.

If one were to assess whether the women were better off after a generation the balance would be in favour of the 1880s if only because of the coming of the Temperance Society and the Band of Hope. Both these bodies flourished, initiated and vigorously encouraged by the church. The meetings in Welham Green and Bell Bar, the teas, entertainments, soirees, dialogues, recitals and speeches from reformed drunkards, were immensely popular with the wives for whom the hazard of violence from tipsy husbands was somewhat reduced.

What that hazard could be may be seen from the case of James Bovingdon who, in 1858, was charged at the County Petty Sessions with assaulting his wife and a neighbour Baines, not to mention damaging a door. Bovingdon was a fifty-year-old labourer living in Reeves Lane with two teenage daughters and one at school. Eliza his wife told how he had struck her on the back with a lump of salt and turned her out of doors. He was not drunk, she said, but "a little the worse for liquor.’ She ran to the nearby house of Baines who heard her cry, "For God’s sake open the door" which he did and shut it after her. This was at 10.30 P.M. Bovingdon came running up in a rage, without his shoes, and broke down Baines door. Baines tried to take him to his own house, begging him to go home quietly but he would not, swearing to kill Baines. The law appeared in the person of the young police constable William Dunn who arrested Bovingdon. "He was very violent and threatened he would shoot Baines if he had a gun.

Eliza explained to the Bench that she could not live with James any longer; she had put up with his ill usage long enough and she was afraid for ha life. She does seem to have had a good deal to bear. Two years before James had been charged with failing to support Eliza so that she had had to go on the parish. The Bench had dismissed the case, contenting itself with advising the couple to live happily together. Clearly, this had not been enough. James was led to protest strongly. "Give a dog a bad name and hang him’, he burst out. "I would rather some one put me down out of the way than go on like it is with me. It is all false what they say and I have spoken the truth if you blow my brains out for it." All the same he was fined £5 for each assault or four months in gaol in default and required to find sureties to keep the peace for six months.

Barely a year passed before Eliza had more trouble with her husband, again "not sober but not drunk". He had not been able to pay the fines and four months in prison had not improved him. This time they quarrelled about money. He was angry because he had been cheated by fellow workers and when she told him that if he did not give her more money he would go back to gaol he threatened to cut off her head with his razor. While she ran to a neighbour he made off and was found by the police. Although he pleaded that the threat was only a manner of speaking and that he would not hurt a hair of her head, he had to find two recognisances of £10 and two sureties of £6 to keep the peace. Whether he found them or went to gaol for another spell is not known. However, three years later the couple was still together. By then their circumstances were somewhat easier, for Ellza had the earnings of a strawplaiter to fall back on and there were only two daughters at home, one of whom worked as a dressmaker.

Peter Kingsford, 1989


Chapter 5 - Publicans and the community
Index - Victorian lives in North Mymms
Preface - Why Peter Kingsford wrote the book
Sources - Where Peter Kingsford researched the material for this book.
Photographs - The photographs reproduced by Peter Kingsford in his book

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